Sunday, December 28, 2008

Wikinomics in finance?

I quite enjoyed reading Wikinomics, although it took far too long. It's an interesting and engaging overview of the latest impacts that mass collaboration has on all sorts of business models. I was particularly surprised to see how many big names were already successfully active in that space. Which begs the question why, apparently, none of them are in the finance industry?

In essence, the Wikinomics principles consist in Being open, Peering, Sharing and Acting globally. Classifying these as principles implies that they are to be applied diligently and carefully as they might kill off any business model otherwise. 

Much of what being open, peering and sharing stands for appeared to be synonymous to me at first, so let me try to identify the differences. Transparency, or being open, could be seen as a catch-all term for peering and sharing. In the Wikinomics sense, it means to provide some sort of access to one's business model. Peering refers to a non-hierarchical production mode where control can only be exercised in a very limited way (for instance by providing a rule book and/or a platform). Sharing means that control over pieces of intellectual property is given up, implying that others can take advantage of it if they discover profitable ways to do so. Wikinomics impressively demonstrates the application of these principles in a number of industrial settings, mostly dealing with immaterial assets such as engineering knowledge, software, IP and other know-how. 

Those principles of wikinomics seem to be anathema to the domain of finance, though. Historically, this industry is rife with control, secrecy and exclusion. Is it inevitably so, though? I don't think so. It is probably inevitable when it comes to the client relationship (yes, the Swiss perspective) and the deployment of capital, which is exclusive by nature. Also, the characteristic of finance as a regulated industry will constrain the applicability of wikinomics as long as it is not embraced by the regulator

When it comes to all other aspects of know-how in finance (risk management, asset management, investment research etc), however, I see no reason why they could not be profitably opened up to wikinomics, especially when there is a premium on transparency in times of crisis. The Tapscotts themselves propose to apply wikinomics to risk management, but unfortunately, they stick rather close to the surface IMHO. It will be interesting to watch IBM Data Governance Council's initiative for XBRL in risk reporting. 

However, without regulatory leadership or at least explicit support, such initiatives are destined to fail or thrive only in un-regulated niches, which are likely to shrink going forward.  A pet project for Ms Schapiro? Here's to hope!

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